Isaacson on Steve Jobs: ‘The miracle of the imagination’
December 1, 2011
ASPEN – At the final pages of “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple founder, I found myself getting choked up. Of course, I knew the story was going to end sadly – Jobs died in October, just a few weeks before the book’s publication, at just 56 years old.
But I also found myself surprised at my emotional reaction. Hadn’t I just spent nearly 600 pages reading about a guy who was a jerk to his co-workers, often a bad family man, arrogant and bullying, someone who made it a habit to park in handicapped spots?
Isaacson, though, who serves as president of the Aspen Institute when not writing biographies, isn’t surprised at my feelings for Jobs. Isaacson, who wrote the biography at Jobs’ request and interviewed the inventor some 50 times, saw in his subject a vision and drive on par with Benjamin Franklin (the subject of a 2003 Isaacson biography) and an out-of-the-box thinking and genius that, if not on par with Albert Einstein (the subject of a 2007 Isaacson biography), was monumental. Even if Jobs didn’t generally exhibit model behavior, a reader nonetheless could find inspiration, even empathy, in his passion and achievements.
“I tried to make it so the reader emotionally connected,” Isaacson said from his office in Washington, D.C. “Even if you think he was flawed, you’re inspired and emotionally moved.”
Jobs’ story – and Isaacson’s comprehensive telling of it, beginning with the adoption of the infant Steve; his upbringing in the Northern California of the 1960s, where he absorbed both the hippie counterculture and the establishment of a technology hotbed; through his founding of Apple, and the creation and marketing of the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone – has connected to an apparently wide range of readers. “Steve Jobs” is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and Isaacson has had saturation coverage on the TV talk-show circuit.
Part of the reason so many people could connect with a technology geek/businessman was the products Apple – and also the movie studio Pixar, which Jobs was instrumental in sustaining in its early years – ushered into the world. Jobs might not have been warm and easy to use, but the creations he had a hand in were, spectacularly so. Isaacson’s book points out that Jobs saw himself as an artist as much as a businessman; his key influences were Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
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“Steve was a very emotional person. And he was able to make products that emotionally connected to people,” said Isaacson, whose book makes the point that Jobs saw himself as an artist as much as a businessman. “That makes him more inspirational, as a character, than most business leaders. Every person who had an iPod or an iPhone felt an emotional connection. He was able to connect art and technology in an inspiring way. He had both aspects to him – the liberal-arts streak and the technology streak – and that’s the secret sauce behind him.”
Another profound influence, and a friend, was cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom Jobs met in Aspen in 1981, when Jobs was attending the International Design Conference at Aspen, and Ma was playing at the Aspen Music Festival. “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t believe a human can do this alone,” Jobs once told Ma, according to the biography.
Isaacson said the relationship with Ma was not the only thing Jobs took away from his multiple visits to the Design Conference. “He saw the beauty of the Aspen Institute architecture, Herbert Bayer’s design, the Bauhaus – that’s reflected in all of Apple’s products, the simpleness, cleanness, friendliness; that they’re both approachable and magical; and that it was great design for the masses,” Isaacson said.
If Jobs’ achievements – and Isaacson believes that Jobs’ most staggering accomplishment was leaving an enormous imprint on six distinct industries (personal computers, animated films, music, phones, publishing and tablet computing) – reflect the bridging of the artistic and technical realms, Jobs the person was a unified package. His ability to be an ass was intricately tied to his power as a businessman.
“With Steve Jobs, you have to take the whole package,” Isaacson said. “When I asked him why he would treat people the way he did, he’d say, ‘This is who I am.’ He was a brilliant but flawed human being. I do think his impatience was connected to his artistic ability. His petulance was connected to his perfectionism. And his coldness at times was connected to his focus on what he should be doing.”
While “Steve Jobs” (whose content Jobs had no control over) doesn’t soft-pedal its subject’s lesser qualities – “When you’re writing a biography, you’re not making an inspiring tale. You’re telling the real life of a real person with strengths and flaws,” Isaacson said – Isaacson doesn’t believe Jobs should be seen as a complete failure away from the corporate campus. He points out that some of his business colleagues were intensely loyal, and that, when Jobs was dying of pancreatic cancer, his family gathered around him more out of love than duty. “His behavior might be rough, but it’s not inexcusable,” Isaacson said.
“Steve Jobs” doesn’t find Jobs engaging in a penetrating reassessment of his ways as death approaches. The shifts in his behavior were subtle. Still, Isaacson enjoyed his time with Jobs. “I felt inspired by him,” he said. “I felt his intensity. I became emotionally fond of him.”
For me, it took till page 457 of the biography to become emotionally fond of Jobs. But then I read an excerpt from the commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Jobs had just started speaking publicly about his cancer diagnosis. I was struck by the humanity of what he said: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Asked how Jobs compares to his previous biography subjects Franklin and Einstein, Isaacson said all three shared a certain kind of intelligence. “At the Aspen Institute, you meet a lot of smart people,” he said. “It’s the creative people you pay attention to.”
Isaacson then chose two other people as useful comparisons for Jobs. “I think he’ll be up there in the pantheon with Edison – meaning a great inventor, a prickly personality,” he said. “And a real genius for seeing the future.
“And he ranks with Walt Disney, for having a feel for mystery as well as technology. Disney’s phrase about the miracle of the imagination – that applies equally to Steve Jobs.”